Earlier this month I wrote about the British government’s plans for a new HS2 high speed rail service in England. The first stretch would be between London Euston and Birmingham. Future development by 2033 would provide for two branches, one heading towards Manchester, the other an East Midlands hub through Nottingham to Leeds. The trains would operate at speeds up to 250mph. The estimated cost is £42.6 billion. Consultation on phase two began in July and is open for submissions until the end of January 2014.
So is all this just a dream? It is apparent from this map produced by BBC News that the routes go through constituencies mainly represented by Conservative MPs, particularly in areas such as Berkshire and Oxfordshire. Political pressure is mounting on some of these Conservative MPs, who have indicated they might vote against the government’s bill when it reaches Parliament, including former Welsh Secretary, Cheryl Gillan, Andrea Leadsom and Dan Byles.
Now BBC News reports that with so many Tory MPs opposed to the plan, it might need the support of Labour. After today, that cannot be guaranteed, according to Political Editor Nick Robinson. This is because Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls told the Labour Party conference in Brighton although the party still backed the idea of a new north-south rail link, it would cancel it if costs rise:-
“Conference, we support investment in better transport links for the future. And we continue to back the idea of a new North-South rail link. But under this government the High Speed 2 project has been totally mismanaged and the costs have shot up to £50 billion. David Cameron and George Osborne have made clear they will go full steam ahead with this project – no matter how much the costs spiral up and up. They seem willing to put their own pride and vanity above best value for money for the taxpayer. Labour will not take this irresponsible approach. So let me be clear, in tough times – when there is less money around and a big deficit to get down – there will be no blank cheque from me as a Labour Chancellor for this project or for any project. Because the question is – not just whether a new High Speed line is a good idea or a bad idea, but whether it is the best way to spend £50 billion for the future of our country. And Conference, in tough times it’s even more important that all our policies and commitments are properly costed and funded.”
Supporters say the project will provide much needed extra rail capacity. The Labour leader of Manchester City Council criticised his party for raising doubts about its viability, accusing Mr Balls of a “cheap shot”. Sir Richard Leese said the high-speed line was “essential” to prevent the North and Midlands “slowly grinding to a halt”. “There are better ways for the shadow chancellor to demonstrate fiscal responsibility than take a cheap shot at HS2,” he added.
Earlier another of Labour’s frontbench team, shadow treasury chief secretary Rachel Reeves, said the party would cancel it “if we don’t think it’s good value for money and costs continue to rise”. The estimated cost of the plan has risen in the past few months from £34.2bn to £42.6bn – plus £7.5bn for rolling stock – and some senior Labour figures such as Lord Mandelson and Alistair Darling now oppose the project.
The Stop the HS2 campaign said Mr Balls was “dead right”, adding that it was “only the vanity of politicians which is keeping this white elephant on life support”.
But the RMT union general secretary Bob Crow said ditching HS2 would set back for a decade the modernisation of the railways. “Britain is already in the slow lane when it comes to the railways and RMT will fight any plans by Ed Balls and the political class to leave us stuck there,” he said.
A Department for Transport spokesman said HS2 was right for the future of the country and had the support of civic leaders across the North and Midlands. “HS2 will free up vital space on our railways for passengers and freight, generate hundreds of thousands of jobs and deliver better connections between our towns and cities,” a spokesman said.
While a “tight lid” must be kept on costs, the CBI urged politicians to focus on the big picture. “HS2 will connect eight of our 10 biggest cities, boost regeneration projects across the country for years to come, and will avert a looming capacity crunch on the West Coast Main Line,” it said.
BBC transport correspondent Richard Westcott said it was a big shift in Labour’s stance. It meant the party would not commit to cancelling HS2 before the election, but would review it if they won. He said Labour would look at whether it was the best way to spend £50bn, or whether they should look at other options, like different routes or big improvements to existing lines.